Friday, 20 September 2019

Socialism explained (the Friday Fungus version)

From a late Soviet TV show called The Fifth Wheel:
"I have indisputable evidence," he said, "that the October Revolution was the brainchild of people who'd been taking hallucinating mushrooms for years, and in the long run, mushrooms replaced their personalities, and they turned into mushrooms. So, I just want to say that Lenin was a mushroom. Furthermore, he was not just a mushroom, but also a radio wave."
So said Sergei Kurekhin in conversation with Sergei Sholokhov the show's presenter (it was, I hasten to add a satire not a serious argument). And, in this Reason article by Jesse Walker, we find that they weaved an elaborate conspiracy theory - akin to John Allegro's equally bizarre argument that Jesus was a mushroom - involving Mayan temple frescoes, Carlos Castenada and much else besides.

The article comments on how Kurekhin was involved with the National Bolshevik Party which may - or may not - be an elaborate spoof. The Party did pioneer some of the punkier bits of Russian opposition politics and Kurekhin was an early adopter of fake news as a propaganda (or satire - hard to tell sometimes) tool. As Walker concludes:
Either way, Kurekhin doesn't just have a famous piece of fake news under his belt—he was an early adopter of ironic fascism too. The man may be 23 years dead, but this is his world; the rest of us are just mushrooms growing in it.
Very odd.


Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Transport planners are asking the wrong question - which is why their answer is always 'more trains'

Places of work are not conveniently distributed and, to make matters worse, where most people live is more disbursed than planners seem to think. Since most people don't live in dense inner-city suburbs and don't work in 'central business districts' (this is true even for a city like London), transport planning solutions founded on urban transit from suburb to city don't work. Transport planners are asking the wrong question and getting the wrong answer.

Here's Joel Kotkin talking about Los Angeles:
If you want a job in Southern California, it is very useful to have a car. The average worker in the Los Angeles metropolitan area (which includes Orange County) can get to fewer than 1 percent of the jobs by transit in 30 minutes. By car, the average worker can get to 33 times as many jobs, according to University of Minnesota research. In Riverside-San Bernardino, the average worker can get to nearly 100 times as many jobs by car as by transit in 30 minutes.
Yet, as Kotkin observes, the city managements in Southern California have "...decided only their solution — more trains — is an acceptable alternative." There's no consideration of ride-hailing, ride-sharing or private jitneys - responses that work with the dispersed nature of the place and the realities of how people live.

West Yorkshire is, you'll all agree, pretty urban in nature but its land area is a third bigger than Greater London with a quarter of the population. And, for all Leeds supposed significance (something I consider consistently overstated to the detriment of the region), the distribution of employment is such that the same applies to West Yorkshire as does in Los Angeles - if you want a job it's pretty useful to have a car.

Despite this reality, transport planners remain transfixed by the idea of the train (or some other fixed line system such as trams, streetcars or trolley buses) - transport solutions that, as one wag put it, "take people from one place they don't want to be to another place they don't want to be". We go to London, which has the most comprehensive public transport system of any major city anywhere, and say "let's do that" without appreciating the constraints of physical geography, where people live and where they work. We need a tram because Manchester has a tram.

But Manchester's tram system doesn't serve most of Greater Manchester:

So, because the tram doesn't go near where most Mancunians live, they do what they've done for years - get in their car and drive to work. Tram systems are great but still, for places that have them, represent fewer than 5% of commuter journeys.

The central problem here - one that transport planners must know but seem to ignore - is that the distribution of people and jobs simply isn't suited to the sort of mass transit solutions those planners like other than where population density is high and there has been a long history of major investment in transport infrastructure (London and Tokyo are the two best examples). Given that it is uneconomic to run relative cheap bus services into many dispersed parts of West Yorkshire what hope do we have of creating a fixed infrastructure transit system that can replace using the car?

Last night I had a conversation with some folk about buses and taxis (it started with us talking about getting the train to Carlisle). The conclusion of the conversation was that, if there were more than two of you then getting a taxi to Bingley station for the train is cheaper than using the bus. And, even with two people the extra cost of a cab is minimal (seven quid in a taxi, six quid and change on the bus). So you get a taxi that comes at your convenience, gets you there quicker and picks you up from your front door rather than have you stand in the wind and rain at a bus stop.

So the right way to think about transport in this case is "how do we make taxis cheaper, cleaner and safer". But that's not what transport authorities are doing - quite the opposite. When a system arrives (ride sharing) that promises to do just this the response of authorities is to try and stop the improvement. And the same goes for ride-hailing, jitneys and mini-buses - public authorities put regulatory barriers in the way, often at the behest of those whose interests are affected by these innovations.

This isn't to say you shouldn't have a tram (although I consider it the wrong thing for West Yorkshire) but to argue for transport planning to work with human behaviour rather than to see itself as trying to force people to change that behaviour. I never drive into Leeds city centre, not because I'm trying to save the planet or think cars are evil but because it's cheap and convenient for me to do so (especially when my wife drops me off at the station). I do drive into Bradford centre because the public transport option isn't cheaper or more convenient.

Joel Kotkin is right to criticise this sort of statement from transport chiefs (this is from the CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Phil Washington):
“It’s too easy to drive in this city. We want to reach the riders that left and get to the new ones as well. And part of that has to do with actually making driving harder.”
Since no transport system based on fixed lines can serve a dispersed population as well as the car, this attitude condemns many people to a less pleasant, more expensive and slower journey that can't be substituted for a ride on a public transport system. Yes the new capacity will fill up (although it is interesting to note that most journeys on UK tram systems outside London are not commuter journeys) but it will be marginal to the totality of journeys.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the 'decarbonisation' of road transport (what you use to generate the electricity, how to keep all those cars charged up, power grid problems, etc.) but the intention of public authorities is to do just that - we're committed to 100% zero-emission vehicles by 2040. It would be, therefore, better to invest in resolving those unanswered questions than to pile more billions into transport systems that don't even begin to answer the question we should be asking - how can people move around as they do now but more efficiently, more safely and more cleanly?


Sunday, 15 September 2019

Cottingley - a planning fairy tale

A few days ago a local landowner and developer announced plans to build 155 homes on land near the village of Cottingley (yes folks the place where the fairies live). The site in question is in the 'green belt' although the owners have, I suspect, a reasonable chance under Bradford's local plan of seeing it allocated for housing. I'm also sure that the development will be fought tooth and nail by neighbouring residents.

The applicant knows that he has to make the case that there is an overwhelming need for the the homes such that the Council can set aside the current 'green belt' designation. They have this to say:
“We are aware of a very acute shortage of local housing and we are proposing to submit a planning application that not only delivers market and affordable housing to meet a local need but also propose very extensive areas of public greenspace to be enjoyed by all local residents. We are proud of our local business development achievements and have held this land for a considerable number of years."
We are then reminded that the Council has failed year after year to get anywhere close to the target set for new homes (it was over 800 short for 2017-18) and that there is a real shortage of housing as witnessed by the rise in house prices. I'll leave this to play out (I'm no longer Cottingley's local councillor) but my best guess is that, despite the lack of a five-year land supply, the development will be refused on 'green belt' grounds.

Instead I'd like to talk about Bradford's local plan and, more broadly, about the local plan process in general. Responding to the proposed development the Council says this:
“The proposed core strategy does not allocate any housing sites in Cottingley, however, the review is in its early stages and will be subject to consultation and examination. It could be several years before it is formally adopted.”
The first part might mislead - the purpose of the core strategy is to establish what housing is needed and where. It may not allocate housing sites but it does identify the amount of housing needed in places like Cottingley. Bradford Council formally adopted a core strategy in July 2017 and this tells us that Cottingley needs 395 new homes during the plan period. Given the village is entirely surrounded by 'green belt' the only place for this housing to go is on that 'green belt'. So the landowner has a point.

But Bradford Council, a matter of months after approving a core strategy and before it had got round to deciding precisely where it wanted the new housing (and other stuff) to go, has decided to review its core strategy. Ostensibly this review responds to changes in national planning policies such as a standard method to the calculation of housing need and adjustments to the definition of affordable housing. The Council also spotted - I made a lengthy representation at examination on this so it wasn't a surprise - that a lot of housing sites in the inner city are not viable and is saying now that "deliverability and viability" are central to plan-making.

So, while Bradford Council does have an adopted core strategy it doesn't have a completed local plan and is reviewing that core strategy. The Council say that formal adoption isn't expected until "early 2022" and this assumes the process runs smoothly, that there aren't further tweaks needed following national policy debates and that the politicians allow time. And only when this process is complete can the Council begin to look at actual allocations. It could be 2025 before the Council has a complete, examined and adopted local plan. The process of producing the local plan started in 2008 - seventeen years filled with consultancy reports, housing assessments, calls for sites and regulatory appraisal documents, examinations and political bun fights.

Am I alone in thinking this is no way to run a planning system and that it's no surprise to see landowners, house-builders and developers jumping the gun to push forward sites they want to develop - sites Bradford needs to meet housing requirements. And Bradford is not alone - by 2017 over 40% of English planning authorities had not adopted a plan and many began their process before Bradford. And, since this year's local elections, council after council is trying to pull their local plan (examples include Vale of White Horse, Woking, Guildford, Braintree and Uttlesford) because the new political leadership got elected off the back of opposing housing development. The system is a joke.

If a sensible government wants to improve housing delivery, save local councils money and have a planning system that is accessible then the best piece of advice I can give them is to scrap the local plan process. It is unwieldy, over-complicated and inefficient. It's reliance on a comprehensive evidence base is ludicrous because the time taken to gather the evidence and have it examined makes that evidence, in a dynamic environment, out-of-date. The result is Councils, Bradford is a good example, that do and redo strategic housing market assessments and land availability assessments in a vain endeavour to get an up-to-date plan. Great news for consultants but not for an efficient planning system.

We need either a much simpler and more broad brush system or else to deal with applications on a case-by-case basis using rules on rolling land supply (five years worth of housing sites, for example) alongside wider protections (landscape, heritage, ecology, etc.) to make decisions rather than wait for an allocations plan. Alongside sensible changes to national policies around 'green belts' such as excluding previously-developed land from 'green belt' constraint this could result in a planning system more able to meet need that the elaborate and expensive plan-led approach we use today.


Thursday, 12 September 2019

Quote of the day - the climate apocalypse

From geographer Joel Kotkin:
The Catholic Church discovered millennia ago that the prospect of apocalypse provides a brilliant tool of propaganda. To people in the Middle Ages, observed historian Barbara Tuchman, “apocalypse was in the air,” the spawn of human sin. In much the same way the environmental movement links human material aspirations with impending disaster, citing manmade climate change as the singular explanation for everything from starvation, wars and crop failures to hurricanes, floods or any other unusual weather.
For all that I'm not a climate change denier (just rightly sceptical of the screeching, frantic policy prescriptions from those most loud about the issue) Kotkin's observation seems to be bang on the money. I've commented already that modern climate change environmentalism has more in common with millinarian religious cults than with more usual political movements. It is dominated by simple, scary words - 'emergency', 'extinction', 'crisis', 'catastrophe' - rather than by the considered assessment we saw a few years ago from the IPCC and through work like the Stern Review, we now have a shout of "do something" linked to setting targets and undermining the market systems that provide the best route for response to the challenges.

The worst outcomes of all this are either the imposition of arbitrary emissions targets that result in global depression or the triumph of denialism leading to us stopping the gradual transition away from an extractive economy. So long as we indulge the Greta Thurnberg doom agenda this polarisation becomes more and more likely and we will become more attached to a set of essentially arbitrary policies rather than as has been the case up to now, a more considered and gradual process away from those things most contributing to climate change - deforestation, burning fossil fuels - and a focus on things that are less important but focus directly on consumer behaviour (eating meat, using plastics).

We should also begin to talk about the good news - levels of deforestation have declined (despite the best efforts of environmentalist-driven demands for bio-fuels) and the use of the most polluting hydrocarbons (coal, crude oil) in energy is declining while use of renewables rises. There isn't a climate apocalypse but the manner in which politicians and public officials are being led to endorse the nonsense of a "climate emergency" reminds us just how difficult it is to counter those absolutely wedded to an apocalyptic doom cult.


Sunday, 8 September 2019

The planning system is a big reason for Britain's sluggish economy - reform it

This can't be said to often - we have a dysfunctional planning system that sits right at the heart of our economy's sclerosis and underperformance. If you want places to grow and succeed you need to sort out the planning system, especially for housing.

From Sam Bowman and Stian Westlake:

The undersupply of housing, whose root cause is a dysfunctional land use planning system, is the UK’s biggest problem. It slows productivity growth by preventing people from moving to get better jobs, forces them to spend more on housing costs than they need to, and to have fewer children than they would like, at a later age than they would like. It creates a brain drain from deprived parts of the country, because only the most talented people can afford to move to prosperous cities, exacerbating regional inequality, and means that many of the income gains from the slower productivity growth we do get accrue to existing landowners in the form of higher rents and housing costs, instead of higher living standards for everyone.
Despite this, every political party is proposing housing policies that at best change none of the fundamentals and at worst will completely destroy the last vestiges of a functioning housing market. The Labour Party talks about rent controls, right-to-buy for private rentals and more vaguely about building lots of council houses. While the latter might help a little, it doesn't address the real issue which is that younger people in productive cities cannot afford to buy a house - or, for that matter, a converted airing cupboard pretending to be a studio flat. Labour's policies would see the complete collapse of the private rented market, a massive increase in homelessness and no increase in the rate of build for market housing and they remain completely wedded to a 'plan and provide' approach that simply doesn't work however much you tinker with it.

For the Conservatives, wedded as we are to the ideas of classical liberal economics, it ought to be simple - make lots more land available in places like Surrey, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire for people to build homes on. Instead we're either (and Bowman & Westlake fall into this trap) proposing massive densification as the solution - huge blocks of flats near to suburban railway stations - or else using false incentives like Help to Buy. Think-tanks like Onward have engaged in massive contortions to come up with housing policies that don't change the fundamentals of our planning system - indeed while they mention planning they hide behind opinion polling showing planning reform is unpopular to ignore the damage it is doing.

There are 118 golf courses in Surrey each of which could provide between 2,000 and 3,000 homes at suburban densities - just having 98 courses would allow for 60,000 new homes. We can then consider redundant airfields and other previously developed land as well as stopping the ridiculous block on what got called 'garden grabbing' where houses on huge single plots (something there's plenty of in the Home Counties) get redeveloped at more normal suburban densities of 20-25 homes per acre. To achieve this you don't need to scrap the 'green belt' you just change the rules to mean that previously-developed land (including those golf courses, gardens and airfields) falls outside those green belt protections unless there are exceptional reasons otherwise.

The second change to planning would be to alter the basis on which assessments of housing need are made. These "objective assessments of housing need" (OANs) are a core reason for our delivery problems. Supposedly these assessments are made on the basis of projected population growth adjusted to acknowledge economic factors (these are always upwards - nowhere admits to their local economy shrinking). The problem is that OANs point to a precise number for housing need - 43,500 for Bradford - and planners therefore identify and allocate a similarly precise acreage of land on which those homes will be built. In areas with growing demand, all of this will be developed meaning that there is no market for development land and the constrained supply - just the bits the planners have shaded in - results in higher land prices than would be the case if, for example, planners identifed land to meet twice the OAN housing number.

Finally we need to review the basis for green belt policy. If we hold to the five reasons set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) there is no reason why the scale of Britain's green belts cannot be substantially reduced while still preventing the merging of communities, discouraging unmanaged sprawl, protecting the environment and encouraging the re-use of previously-developed land. We also need to get away from the foolish and expensive obsession with building new towns and new villages rather than extending the towns and villages we already have. Existing places already have the physical and social infrastructure of highways, hospitals, schools, water, sewage treatment and things like pubs, post offices, shops and parks. These existing places are also linked into existing rail, bus and urban transit networks.

I recall listening to the Leader of Lincolnshire County Council explaining how the main barrier to delivering some of the county's big sites was that the service undertakers (electricity, gas, water, etc.) didn't have the resource or investment finance to get the new towns 'wired up'. If, instead of this, the focus was on smaller urban extensions most of these problems would be managed more easily.

The UK's housing policy is a mess and this is entirely the consequence of policy-makers ignoring the simple fact that it is the planning system that causes most of the problem. This isn't to say we shouldn't have more social housing or that there aren't arguments for reforms to how the private rental sector operates but most of Britain's housing problem is people who want what their parents had - a nice house and garden is a decent suburb connected to 'town' where they can raise a family.


Monday, 26 August 2019

Environmental campaigners, more than any other group, are the ones living off fake news.

 There's nothing new with what's now called fake news - in WW1 rumours of a Russian army spread:
"There is being circulated everywhere a story that an immense force of Russian soldiers – a little short of a million, it is said – have passed, or are still passing, through England on their way to France."
The news was given credibility by this being reported in The Times - even though that newspaper merely reported the rumours, it failed to explain they were false (which a quick call to the Foreign Office would have confirmed). So it is with fake news:
Singers and actors including Madonna and Jaden Smith shared photos on social media that were seen by tens of millions of people. “The lungs of the Earth are in flames,” said actor Leonardo DiCaprio. “The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen,” tweeted soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. “The Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire,” tweeted French President Emanuel Macron.
Last week you couldn't move for media reports describing a catastrophe in the Amazon as the entire cast of great and good the world over piled into the story so as to demonstrate that, above all, they cared! Thing is, though, that a lot of what the great and good were sharing was every bit as fake as Russians with snow on their boots marching though England in 1914.
And yet the photos weren’t actually of the fires and many weren’t even of the Amazon. The photo Ronaldo shared was taken in southern Brazil, far from the Amazon, in 2013. The photo that DiCaprio and Macron shared is over 20 years old. The photo Madonna and Smith shared is over 30. Some celebrities shared photos from Montana, India, and Sweden.
Even if this is down to an excess of enthusiasm over fact-checking, the fakeness of the story is at an even bigger magnitude than just celebs splashing pictures of random fires across social media while shouting "climate change" or "far right Brazilian government". It seems - at least according to one of the authors for the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that not only are the photographs fake but:

The Amazon rainforest is not the "lungs" of the planet - “There’s no science behind that. The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash.”

Nor are the fires burning at a record rate - "it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last 10 years ago, Nepstad said."

And anyhow those fires aren't actual rainforest - "(w)hat increased by 7% in 2019 are the fires of dry scrub and trees cut down for cattle ranching as a strategy to gain ownership of land."

It seems - as always that, if you poke a little into any scare story you quickly find it's full of holes, based on dubious information and doubtful science. The reports are filled with frightening words "agribusiness", "right wing", "multinationals" and assorted dots are joined to show how, even if it's not quite a world-wide conspiracy, there's a lot of 'links' between all the nasty people we're told not to like by the great and good.

The same - and this is linked to those fires - goes for cows. To listen to so-called experts, you'd surmise that, to save the planet, all we have to do is stop eating meat and drinking milk. If we do this, hey presto, climate change is fixed. But again the claims look dodgy (and they come from a report that "claimed livestock are responsible for 18% of GHG emissions, but the figure calculated emissions along the entire supply chain, from land use to processing and refrigeration in supermarkets").

So given that every sort of food get transported from farm to processing plant to supermarket, we're left mostly with the methane that cows burp (methane we're told being a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). Here's what happens to that methane in the actual real world:
While methane is 28-times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, methane’s lifespan is just a decade, while CO2 — known as a long-life pollutant — remains in the atmosphere for 1000 years.

After ten years, methane is broken down in a process called hydroxyl oxidation into CO2, entering a carbon cycle which sees the gas absorbed by plants, converted into cellulose, and eaten by livestock.

To put that into context, each year 558m tons of methane is produced globally, with 188m tons coming from agriculture. Almost that entire quantity — 548m tons — is broken down through oxidation and absorbed by plants and soils as part of the sink effect.
And then (who knew?) the number of cows we farm has reduced - America's beef herd is a third smaller than in 1975 and dairy cattle numbers have dropped by even more. Those cows are bigger and produce more milk or more beef per cow - better livestock management, improved feed and genetic science is doing more to save the planet from cow farts than all the shouty vegans telling us to be 'plant-based', and all without us losing the joy of a t-bone steak to go with that great bottle of red.

These are just two examples of how the environmentalist movement, now locked in step with anti-capitalist thugs and animal rights fanatics, uses fake news to propagate its ideology. We could do the same with fracking, nuclear energy, the number and impact of extreme weather events, declining glaciers and dying polar bears. There really is a case for responding to climate change but almost none of the arguments dominating social media and the press stand up to close examination. All these arguments have done it create a ridiculous sense of panic and emergency among the credulous - and we're all credulous at times regardless of how wise we think ourselves.

What's missing in all this is journalism - from big broadcasters and agenda-setting broadsheet newspapers - that asks sceptical questions about the things that environmental campaigners tell them. It seems that, in accepting climate change (or even Climate Emergency or Climate Crisis) as an act of faith, too many journalists simply don't bother to question the latest scare and plonk it straight in front of the viewer, listener or reader. As a result anyone questioning of these stories - even those like me who accept much of the science around global warming - is badged a denier, someone who doesn't recognise that there's a climate emergency dontcha know, and we must act now. More than Trump, Brexit or those nasty right-wingers, environmental campaigners are the ones living off fake news.


Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Would cutting income tax for young people stop the North's brain drain?

Poland has announced a dramatic tax policy:
Poles under the age of 26 who earn less than 85,528 Polish zloty ($22,547) a year will be exempt from the country's 18% income tax starting August 1. The allowance is generous, considering the average Polish salary stands at just below 60,000 zloty ($15,700) a year.
The aim of the policy is to try and stem the tide of young Poles that head for other countries - an estimated 1.7 million people left Poland in the past 15 years which, as the Polish PM observed, "It's as if the entire city of Warsaw left".

For those who have already left, especially the better educated (something like 750,000 graduates are in that 1.7 million figure), the incentive probably isn't good enough and they're likely to be earning more, even after tax, that they would in Poland even assuming there's a comparable job. But it might have two effects - to slow down the departure of young Poles in the future and to encourage new investment to exploit this pool of labour.

Which brings me to my question - could we use the same policy as a means of slowing down the "giant sucking sound" (to borrow from Ross Perot) of Northern graduates heading to London and the South-East? I'm not convinced it's a 'silver bullet' but it would add to the existing incentives of lower living costs especially for housing. It may even attract a few soft southern pansies like me up north! Worth a punt?